Award of Gold Medal for Public Discourse, Trinity College Dublin Historical Society, 25 January 2019
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Ladies and gentlemen
Thank you so much for this wonderful award. It’s a huge honour, to be recognised like this by the Hist – by a society that has trained students in the art of debating for nearly two and a half centuries.
And those habits of reasoned debate which you teach are exactly what Europe needs today.
Democracy has always been about feelings, as well as reason. If we forget about feeling, our politics becomes bloodless, detached from the lives of the very people it should serve. But if we forget about reason, we lose our ability to find the solutions that make their lives better.
Tackling the concerns of Europeans
In just four months, at the European elections in May, Europe’s people will set our continent’s direction for the five years to come. They’ll vote in an atmosphere where feelings are running high – and with good reason.
It’s true that Europe today is the best place to live in history. And yet many people feel unsure about the future. They see technology changing so fast that they can’t tell what will become of their data, their jobs, even their democracy. They see that doing the right thing – studying well, working hard – no longer seems enough to guarantee their children a good job. They find it impossible even to guess what our planet will look like, after climate change reshapes the landscapes they know.
But we won’t solve those problems just with feeling. We won’t solve them by just blaming Europe, as if it were an alien force we can’t control, and not of a part of our democracy. But we won’t fix anything, either, by dismissing people’s worries as “populist issues” – as though the fact that they’re brought up by people we don’t agree with means they don’t matter.
We need to stop thinking of politics as a pantomime of heroes and villains. And we need to commit ourselves, instead, to a reasoned debate about how we can actually tackle Europe’s problems.
The value of Europe
This Europe of ours is not a Heaven; it’s most certainly not a Hell either. It’s a tool; a part of our democracy that gives us the power to deal with things none of our nations can tackle alone.
When the sea is calm, it seems OK to head out to fish in a small boat. But when the sea gets stormy and the waves get high - that’s when you discover the value of being big.
And global waters certainly are getting stormy. Tensions between our largest trading partners are threatening the free trade that makes our lives richer.
Europe’s size gives us the power to stand strong amid those changes. To stand up for the rules that make global trade work. To help calm conflict and support development – building a safer, more stable world for all of us.
So to argue about whether we want that power or not, whether Europe is a good or bad thing, seems to me like a huge distraction from the question that really matters – how are we going to use the power and strength Europe gives us?
The role of the EU and its Member States
That’s the question that the European Parliament and the Commission, together with the Member States in the Council, will have to answer as they begin their next five-year term. And if we are prepared to come together, across their political divides, there’s an enormous amount we can do together to tackle Europe’s problems.
They can support investment, to help European companies compete in this world of global business, and produce the growth and jobs we need.
Our proposals for Europe’s new seven-year budget should help to concentrate more of the spending on things that help business compete – on investment, on research, on innovation, on skills. And the task for the future – for national governments, as well as the EU - is to make sure that money gets where it’s needed.
Europe’s leaders can also make a difference, by deciding to take serious action to tackle climate change.
A couple of months ago, the Commission produced a strategy to make Europe’s economy climate-neutral by 2050. That strategy shows that if we combine our efforts, we can achieve that – without undermining European business and its competitiveness. So one of Europe’s biggest challenges, in the next five years, will be to turn this vision economy into practical plans for a carbon-free future.
Another of those challenges will be to deal with migration.
In 2015, more than a million refugees arrived in Europe, fleeing from conflict that destroyed their homes and their futures. Not since the Second World War, which drove twenty million Europeans from their homes, has Europe had to deal with such a crisis.
That called for urgent action. Creating a European Border and Coast Guard; providing money to support the countries where refugees arrive; and working with the places where they arrive from, to give them better protection.
And by last year, the number of migrants arriving in Europe had fallen by more than 80% since 2015. So what we have now is not a migration crisis - it’s a political crisis. And the challenge for Europe, in the next five years, will be to work together, to find solutions to those political challenges.
And Europe will need to take the right decisions to make sure technology serves society, not the other way round.
In the last few years, we’ve shown how competition rules can defend consumers’ interests, in a world of powerful digital businesses. We’ve made sure digital companies like Google or Amazon don’t misuse their power to hold back innovation and harm consumers.
Last week, we brought together some of the world’s leading experts, to look at how those rules – or at the least the way we apply them – might need to change, to make sure consumers are still protected in the future. So Europeans can still feel safe, even as digital technology transforms the world around them.
And 26 Member States and the Commission standing together with Ireland around Brexit – that is also a European strength.
The role of business
But these are big tasks, and time is short. So everyone – not just governments – will have to do their bit.
That means, for example, that Europe’s businesses will have to step up.
Every business in Europe contributes to climate change – and each one needs to think about what more it can do, to cut carbon emissions to limit global warming.
Every business that uses data needs to make a contribution, to winning back public trust in digital business. They need to explain, simply and clearly, what they plan to do with our data – and they need to offer much better guarantees that they’ll keep that data safe.
And Europe’s businesses need to pay their fair share of taxes in the countries where they make profits, so governments can afford the safety nets that keep people feeling secure.
And as individuals, we have our role to play too.
When we go to the polls in May for the European Parliament elections, we can all send a message. A message that the people of Europe expect their leaders to put their energy into solving Europe’s problems. That they won’t put up with politicians fighting over empty symbols, while the time left to tackle real problems like climate change ticks away.
Here at the Hist, when you teach Ireland’s next generation the skills of argument and debate, you’re not just giving them the chance to test their wits. You’re showing them that every argument has different sides. And you’re giving them the experience of tackling the society’s problems, not with name-calling and posturing, but with reasoned debate.
So I’m very much looking forward to our Citizens’ Dialogue today. Because that dialogue is just what Europe needs right now.
We have the passion, that’s clear. Now, we need to bring that together with the dialogue that can turn our problems into solutions.